Playing Pepper 2022: Washington Nationals

It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching.  Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside.  Not in this space!  Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch.  There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper!  If you want to keep up with the Nationals during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well.  You can follow that here!

Washington Nationals
65-97, fifth in the NL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Max Scherzer (2.8)
Top hitter by bWAR: Juan Soto (7.1)

Like many people, the Nationals would like to reset the clock to 2019 and take a different path through the subsequent years.  After taking home the trophy, they scuffled in the shortened 2020 and then hit bottom in 2021, starting an exodus of familiar faces out the door.  With a talent like Juan Soto, the lean years may not last long.  Let’s see if that’s an opinion shared by our experts!

C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Washington’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?

Drew: The Nats’ big offseason splash was the signing of veteran DH Nelson Cruz. Cruz has remained an elite DH even into his 40’s, and his bat should slot nicely into the lineup between Juan Soto and Josh Bell. I am personally not a fan of the universal DH, but it allowed for the Nats to sign Cruz, so that definitely eased the pain of the rule change. I believe that Cruz will play an important role on the field, but he should play an even more important role off the field. The Nats are much younger than the have been in previous years, and Cruz will serve as an outstanding veteran presence. He is one of the most well-respected players in baseball, making him the perfect role model for the young players that will hopefully be a part of the Nats’ next competitive team.

One thing that I was really hoping for that didn’t happen, or at least hasn’t happened yet, is taking on a bad contract in a trade. The Nats are working hard to build their farm system, and one way that they could do that is by receiving a prospect in exchange for taking a bad contract off another team’s hands. Some players that I have had an eye on include Mike Moustakas, Wil Myers, and Eric Hosmer. Moustakas, especially, would be a great fit now that third baseman Carter Kieboom will miss the first couple months of the season with an elbow injury.

Blake: In an offseason of record spending in the sport, you could argue that the Nationals were a team that had one of the quietest activity-wise this winter. It looked like they had a plan, attacking the one-year deal market with the likes of Nelson Cruz, César Hernández, and Steve Cishek, playing for upside and potentially as trade chips to flip for prospects at the deadline to try and accelerate their turnaround from last year. Then, they just kind of, stopped? So, it’s a bit of a half-baked plan really. It would’ve been good to see them attack that market a bit more, particularly for another starting pitcher and a couple more late-inning relievers, and maybe a left fielder, but alas, this is what they got.

Nick: To be honest, I didn’t like much about the Nationals’ offseason. Naturally it would be a different looking offseason than years prior due to the firesale at the deadline, but they lacked a clear direction. Other rebuilding teams such as the Cubs, Rangers, Tigers and even the Rockies signed major building blocks to their teams in an effort to speed up their rebuild. The Nats did not. They did sign 41 year old Nelson Cruz to presumably flip at the deadline, but that is the only real trade deadline bait we signed this offseason. None of our other assets would net anything solid in return, unless we end up trading Josh Bell, which seems more and more likely as time passes. Instead, the Nationals opted to sign ghosts of Nationals past to play for us this year including Sean Doolittle, Anibal Sanchez, Gerardo Parra and, most recently, Tyler Clippard in a lame PR stunt to keep fans interested while the team stinks.

Justin: The off-season was not great, Bob. After the Nationals traded everything that wasn’t nailed down last summer, there was some hope the team would redeploy the freed up salary in the off-season. Instead we got Nelson Cruz and a couple of relievers. That’s not going to bring the team back to first place. 

C70: Not only is this the first season without Max Scherzer but he is going to be playing for a divisional rival. What are your feelings on that?

Drew: The Mets were perhaps the least-desirable destination for Max Scherzer in the eyes of Nats fans, so of course that’s where he wound up. Not much has gone right for the Nats since they won the World Series in 2019, and this is no different. It will be difficult for Nats fans to watch their former ace pitch for the rival Mets, but nobody can ever take away the 6.5 years that Scherzer spent in DC. He will be wearing a Curly W cap in Cooperstown in all likelihood, which Nats fans can take solace in. After years of watching Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman lead the Nats, it will be quite the adjustment for neither of them to be on the roster.

Blake: Well, it would certainly sting a lot more for Nationals fans had Scherzer not won a World Series with the team in 2019, that’s for sure. I think fans were prepared for Scherzer not to be back with the team. The Nats are trying to retool quickly, and even if they did re-sign the right-hander, he likely wouldn’t be a part of the next competitive Nationals team. However, going to the Mets is going to be tough to watch, especially with him set to pitch in the opening series of the season at Nationals Park. There won’t be any bad blood that weekend though. His contract is for a record average annual value, there was no way he could turn it down, and he’ll get his emotional tribute video on his return to Nationals.

Nick: It’s definitely not ideal, but as Nats fans, we’ve gotten accustomed to franchise legends playing for divisional rivals (like Bryce Harper). Scherzer’s situation was different, however, as he was trying to cash in on one final contract before he called it a career. The Nationals were never going to match that contract he got from the Mets, especially with the state of their team currently. It’s clear no team in baseball was going to match that insane contract. Max deserved to be paid, and if his contract is going to be an albatross on any team, I’m glad it’s the Mets.

Justin: It’ll be depressing to see Max Scherzer in a Mets uniform. Max Scherzer is too good for the Mets. Most of us are too good for the Mets. Let’s just hope Max is wearing a Nationals cap again in a few years…on his Hall of Fame plaque. 

C70: What was the biggest reason for the last place finish in 2021 and has the club made enough of an effort to fix it?

Drew: A lack of pitching, particularly in the bullpen, was a major factor in a disappointing season for the Nats in 2021. Unfortunately, the pitching staff did not improve much this winter. Stephen Strasburg missed nearly all of last season and is an enormous question mark as he works his way back from Thoracic Outlet surgery. Patrick Corbin has struggled mightily in each of the last two seasons but will likely start on Opening Day. He enjoyed a strong finish to the 2021 season, so it will be interesting to see if that carries into 2022. Josiah Gray, acquired from the Dodgers for Scherzer and Trea Turner, impressed in the second half last year but is still very inexperienced. After Gray, the Nats will have a spring competition for the final two spots in the rotation. The leading candidates are Anibal Sanchez, Paolo Espino, Erick Fedde, Aaron Sanchez, and Josh Rogers. If Aaron Sanchez is healthy, he is someone that I am very interested to watch pitch.

As for the bullpen, the Nats are counting on some young relievers to show growth. The closer’s role is Tanner Rainey‘s to lose, but he has had a tough time throwing strikes at times. If he can consistently throw strikes, he has the potential to be a lockdown closer. Kyle Finnegan figures to have a prominent late-inning role as well, and he has shown some promise, but he struggled in the closer’s role last year. Mason Thompson, acquired from the Padres last year for Daniel Hudson, is another young reliever who will have a shot to pitch in the late innings if he can throw strikes. He has all the potential in the world, but he needs to harness his control. Veterans Sean Doolittle and Steve Cishek were signed to one-year deals to stabilize the bullpen, and I am stoked to see Doolittle back in DC. He is a fan favorite and should serve as another outstanding veteran presence. The health of Will Harris will be an x-factor, as he had battled injuries throughout the first two years of his three-year deal he signed prior to the 2020 season. Harris was one of the most consistent relievers in baseball with the Astros, but he has not been able to stay on the field in DC. If he is healthy, he will be a nice veteran to have in the ‘pen.

Blake: I think the correct answer to what went wrong last season is “everything except Juan Soto.” The offense was pretty hit-and-miss, getting shutout or limited to one run far too often for a contending team. The rotation was snake-bitten when Stephen Strasburg went down with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and Patrick Corbin regressed to be one of the worst pitchers in the league. The bullpen started strong but imploded midseason. It all led to the deadline sell-off as they looked to the future and played their younger players the rest of the way. As mentioned above, there were some solid additions around the fringes of the roster, but nothing substantial that would seem to drastically alter the course that was set last season.

Nick: Time. In many ways, time was against the Nationals. They frequently had one of the oldest teams in baseball without much youth reinforcements from the minors, but they also had managed to stay competitive for the better part of a decade without the full rebuild most teams have to go through. The window had closed on that era of Nationals baseball and it was team to recoup assets and try to build it back up. In my opinion, they did as much as they could at the deadline but not much at all during the offseason. We’re going to be in for a long rebuild, unless we get lucky without generational prospects again like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

Justin: The Nationals finished in last place because they gutted the team at the trade deadline. On July 1 last year, the Nats were 2.5 games out of first place and above .500. In fact, they were ahead of the Braves. There’s an alternate universe where the Nats had a respectable July and then added pieces at the trade deadline to make a playoff run. That would’ve been more fun than what actually happened. 

C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?

Drew: 2020 first-round draft pick Cade Cavalli has been turning heads since joining the Nats organization and his big league debut feels closer than ever. He rocketed through the minor leagues last year, finishing the season in Triple-A. He recorded the most strikeouts among minor league pitchers, and he figures to play a crucial role in the Nats “retool”. If he develops into a quality major league starting pitcher, that could potentially accelerate the Nats’ rebuild. He dominated in his spring debut, to the tune of six strikeouts in three innings. Look for him to debut at some point this year, potentially as soon as May.

Blake: It might be towards the latter part of the season before he makes it to the big leagues, but the team’s most exciting prospect is Cade Cavalli and it’s not particularly close. The towering right-hander stormed through the minor leagues to start 2021, blowing away High-A and Double-A competition, leading all of the minors in strikeouts last season. He finished the season with a hiccup in Triple-A with his command failing him a bit at the end of a long season and a new ball at that level. He’ll start the year at the same level to try and iron out some of the kinks, but his pure stuff is electric and that should allow him to rise to the majors at some point this season.

Nick: Cade Cavalli has all the buzz amongst Nats fans. He’s our top prospect and should make his debut sometime this year as he was a college arm and didn’t need as much seasoning in the minors. He does have some control issues, but with a fastball in the triple digits, it’s hard not to be excited for him to finally arrive.

Justin: The Nationals farm system has been thin for a while, one of the reasons they decided make some trades last summer. So there’s no armada on the way, but 2020 first round pick Cade Cavalli should make his debut this year. There should be plenty of room in the rotation. 

C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?

Drew: For the first time in a decade, the Nats will not enter 2022 with realistic World Series aspirations. I am viewing this season as an opportunity for young players to develop and show the organization that they deserve to be part of the next playoff push. For Kieboom and Victor Robles, this may be their final opportunity. For other young players, such as Keibert Ruiz, Lane Thomas, and Luis Garcia, this is a valuable developmental year at the game’s highest level.

If the Nats’ young players show significant growth and guys like Stephen Strasburg and Will Harris are able to stay healthy, I think the Nats could surprise some people and be better than expected. I’m not saying they’re going to necessarily push the defending champion Braves for the division, but I have a very hard time seeing this team lose 100 games. The Nats had one of the best offenses in baseball after the trade deadline last year, even after trading away Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Harrison, and Yan Gomes. Of course, they still had arguably the best hitter in baseball in Juan Soto. I expect the offense to produce a ton of runs this year, but the lack of pitching will hold them back. The Nats have traditionally been a team built on pitching, and their pitching staff this year is just flat out not good enough. If the Nats are able to stay generally healthy and their young players take strides, I could see this team flirting with a .500 record. I would consider that a successful season.

Blake: After last season’s trade deadline sell-off and a quiet offseason, expectations are relatively low in the nation’s capital compared to previous seasons. Fans do seem prepared for there to not be a postseason berth waiting for the team at the end of the season. That’s probably about right. While the offense figures to be better than 2021, the pitching will likely let this team down and see them finish with around 70-75 wins, but they might at least be a pesky team for some of their division rivals this season.

Nick: This is a fifth place team at best. If they somehow finish above fifth, it’s because the Marlins reverted back to their historical self and played horrendous baseball. The Nationals are just too young and inexperienced right now. You can’t look at a team who’s starting shortstop and third baseman are Alcides Escobar and Maikel Franco and expect much more than that.

Justin: The Nationals will be bad this season. The 2019 World Champion team was old and most of that team is gone. Juan Soto will be very lonely in this lineup, and he’ll probably walk 160 times. This team just isn’t talented enough. We’re still in the beginning of a rebuild. Check back in 2024. 

C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Nationals Twitter accounts to follow.

Drew: @MarkZuckerman @DaveJageler @OnePursuitTakes

Blake: @MarkZuckerman – Nats beat reporter who’s been around since Day 1 in D.C.
@RocRedWings, Nationals Triple-A affiliate is a great follow, even more so because they have a bat dog!
@HalfStHighHeat – A bit different in a good way from your usual baseball podcasts, even if two of the three hosts are in favor of the DH

Nick: Three of the best accounts to follow on Nats Twitter:

– @WeAreAllShack – my podcast co-host, always up to date with content and keeps it real
– @OnePursuitTakes – Nats Highlights Guy, always posting clips from the games
– @Reverrsse – Great YouTube videos every week on the Nats and other teams around baseball

Justin: Not big on Twitter recommendations, but beat writer @MarkZuckerman is worth a follow. He’s a reliable stream of team updates and his running bit where he responds to people who mistake him for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg still makes me laugh for some reason. 

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